Tucked away in the streets of the Brera district, the San Simpliciano Basilica stands in an elegant cobbled piazza accessible from the bustling Corso Garibaldi nearby. The adjacent Piazza Paolo VI, to the right of the edifice, is an ideal place for an outdoor pause.
San Simpliciano is one of the earliest churches built in Milano. It is the last of the four Basilicas that St. Ambrose sought to build in the peripheral areas of the city. As for the previous three structures, he chose the location of a cemetery, in this case it was along the road to Como, in an area rife with prostitutes: so he named it Basilica Virginum (Basilica of the Virgins). It was completed by his successor St. Simpliciano, whose wish upon his death in 401 was to be buried there: the basilica accordingly took his name.
Today, the brick facade evokes the typical Romanesque architecture of the city.
Inside the church, a small door to the left of the apse leads to the 5th century chapel of San Simpliciano, where the remains of the martyrs Sisinio, Martirio and Alessandro are conserved. Impelled by their missionary vocation they set off to preach the Gospel in the region of Anaunia, now known as the Val di Non, in present-day Trentino, where they were tragically martyred.
A popular legend is linked to these three saints. The people of Lombardy attribute the victory at the battle of Legnano in 1176 to the intercession of the Holy Martyrs. It is said that on the day of the battle between the medieval Lombard League and the German Emperor Frederick I, three doves flew from the church of San Simpliciano - where the remains of the saints were preserved - and came to rest on the cross of the Carroccio (war altar) where they remained until the end of the battle.
Secreted to the side of the Basilica stands the former convent of San Simpliciano, now the headquarters of the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy.
According to an ancient story the bells of San Simpliciano possessed exceptional healing powers. To rid himself of a terrible toothache, a merchant from Porta Comasina obtained permission from the bell ringer to ring the bells himself by pulling the rope with his teeth. The good news was that his toothache vanished, the bad was that he suffered a terrible blow to his head.